Child suicide rates are inexplicably increasing in the United States

When 10-year-old Kelly Wright took her own life, there were no warning signs, says her father, Stuart. The little girl was full of life, she loved to draw, hike and canoe, and the day before her death she had shown her parents her dance steps.

Kelly didn’t look sad or introverted; She did well in school and quickly made friends. And Mr. Wright never thought a 10-year-old could even think about suicide.

“I’ll never find out,” laments Mr. Wright, 63, who was living near Tampa, Florida at the time of his daughter’s death in January 2020.

The number of children dying by suicide in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years. Parents are often unaware that their children are having suicidal thoughts, according to new research on the subject. Among girls ages 10 to 14, the suicide rate more than tripled from 0.5 per 100,000 to 2 per 100,000 between 2007 and 2020, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. For boys of the same age, this rate fell from 1.2 per 100,000 to 3.6 per 100,000 over the same period.

Although these numbers are infinitesimally small compared to the number of adolescents and adults who commit suicide, it is now the second leading cause of death in children in this age group.

Of particular concern to therapists and parents is that suicidal thoughts and behaviors tend to be persistent and young people use them as a means of coping with distress.

Mr. Wright, now a volunteer for the Alliance of Hope, an organization that helps people who have witnessed the suicide of a loved one, wants to warn other families of the danger. “It can totally happen to your kid,” he warns.

New research shows that suicidal thoughts and attempts are much more common in young children than previously thought. Among 9- to 10-year-olds and their parents surveyed on the subject, 14.3% reported suicidal thoughts and 1.26% attempted suicide, according to the analysis of data from a large study of adolescent health and brain development , attended by nearly 12,000 young people across the United States. The study was published in the journal in 2021 Translational Psychiatry.

Psychologists and psychiatrists say they don’t know exactly why suicidal thoughts and behaviors are on the rise among American children. These figures contradict an old assumption that children who have not yet reached puberty have little or no thought of ending their lives.

New research reveals risk factors in young children, such as family conflicts and early exposure to alcohol. Depression is most commonly associated with suicidal ideation in adolescents and adults, but in younger children, scientists are finding that ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and conduct disorders are also closely associated with thoughts and suicidal behavior.

Some scholars highlight the easy online access to information about suicide, particularly the means of suicide, and point out that many very young children have smartphones. Others point to the increasing number of firearms in American homes.

In black children, studies have found a link between experiencing discrimination and suicidal thoughts. Between the ages of 5 and 12, black children are twice as likely to die from suicide as white children, says Arielle H. Sheftall, senior investigator at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio.

Research shows that children who identify as gay or bisexual and those with lower family incomes are at higher risk of suicide.

Some health care physicians also believe that exposure to violence at home, in their community, and in the media contributes to the development of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young children. And the suicide of some can mean other vulnerable young people also end their lives in what researchers call suicide contagion, which may contribute to a rise in the already above-average number of suicides.

What particularly worries therapists and parents is that suicidal thoughts and behaviors tend to be persistent and that young people are using them as a means of coping with distress, says Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of St. Louis Medicine.

“As these children get older, they may exhibit increasingly dangerous behaviors, which increases the number of reenactments,” she explains.

Much of the new data on teen suicide comes from a ten-year study funded and ongoing by the National Institutes of Health. In the United States, researchers are analyzing a wealth of data collected when these children were 9-10 years old.

Intense family conflict is associated with suicidal thoughts in this age group, according to a 2020 analysis published in the journal JAMA network open. “We think the phenomenon is fueled by feelings of disconnection from others, unloved, or feeling like a burden,” says Deanna Barch, professor of psychology and brain science at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the article.

Even children with no obvious risk factors can act impulsively in a moment of need.

dr Barch and her colleagues also found that low parental engagement — such as not knowing where the kids are after school or what they’re doing online — was associated with suicidal thoughts and behavior. A low level of supervision can increase the risk that children will access suicide information or become victims of cyberbullying. It can also indicate that you cannot get help to overcome difficult emotions and experiences.

Parents are generally unaware that their children may be affected: 77% of the parents in the group of children who reported having had suicidal thoughts themselves reported that their children had no suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Several studies show that people with ADHD and behavioral problems, e.g. for example, if they tend to argue, they are more likely to have such thoughts and behaviors. “When a child grows up with undiagnosed symptoms, it feels like they’re pranking their friends at school,” says Ran Barzilay, a child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. According to a study by Dr. Barzilay and colleagues published in 2021, ADHD medication use is associated with less suicidal thoughts and practice in children with severe behavioral problems JAMA network open.

for dr Sheftall, some children diagnosed with ADHD may actually have depression. While it’s widely accepted that this manifests itself in sadness and loneliness, she says it can lead to irritability and unruly behavior in younger children.

Doctors recommend that parents talk to their children about their feelings, including sadness and frustration, even with the youngest. Share ways to deal with complicated emotions and tell your kids that your love is unconditional. Ask them directly if they have suicidal thoughts. And keep firearms, cleaning supplies, and medication locked away.

Even children with no obvious risk factors can act impulsively in a moment of need, psychiatrists point out.

Mr Wright says he has been inquiring about the risk factors for suicide since his daughter’s suicide and that Kelly had none. “She grew up in a very loving home. She was our whole life,” he says.

Mr. Wright states that he regrets not discussing suicide with Kelly, who killed herself with a gun.

“If I could go back, I would have a conversation with her, I would ask her, ‘Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? do you know what suicide is says Mr. Wright, who moved to Louisiana with his wife.

Mr. Wright has spoken her full name — Kelly Helen Wright — out loud every morning since his daughter’s death. He keeps fresh flowers next to his picture and when he is at home he always has a lighted candle. In April, he celebrates each of his daughter’s birthdays with cake and balloons.

“I speak to Kelly and tell her that this candle represents the light you bring into our lives,” he continues. “This light will not go out as long as I live. »

(Translated from the original English version by Bérengère Viennot)

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